Some of the author’s favorites [photo by Rod J. Eckrich]


Film-viewing club makes an art form out of mockery

There’s a singular joy in bashing bad movies. It turns what otherwise would be a waste of time into pure pleasure. It relieves stress. It lets our id out to play.

You have some idea of the delights that await if you’ve seen an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a television show that plops a man and his robot friends in a theater and allows them to mock with impunity some of the worst films Hollywood has to offer. In other words, like a Greek chorus, but a lot snarkier.

The Bad Video Club has been goofing on movies for about 10 years. Started by Dave Smith, the group meets in Schererville to—voluntarily—watch bottom-of-the-barrel movies or films that have attained midnight-showing cult status and milk as much entertainment out of them as possible. Invitations are sent out, and recipients bring bottles of wine to Dave and his wife’s house.

When he was young, Dave was fond of double and triple features at the theater along with mixtures of cartoons and shorts. His Bad Video Club draws on that type of programming: Each member brings a videotape or DVD of either short or feature-length films. The group keeps track of the films it has screened, and it bestows honors such as Best Bad Actor and Actress and Best Bad Feature.

I had the privilege of joining the club late last year for cracking wise at badness. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public, but I think people should follow the club’s lead and form a group of their own to sharpen their wits and broaden their viewing repertoire. People love to watch movies together, and not everyone can keep their thoughts to themselves during a show, so a bad movie club is the way to go.

Seven people attended that night, mingling and eating food before kicking off the cinematic festivities.

For the shorts, we watched a Superman cartoon from the 1930s and an episode of “Buck Rogers.” I questioned the selection of these works because I thought they were pretty good. They may seem hokey now, but these shorts were well-regarded and innovative for their time. Plenty of bad movies and laughs followed, though.

“The Monster Walks” (1932), about a killer ape, was incredibly boring.

“This was made for people suffering from insomnia. I'll have to watch this next time I have trouble sleeping” was just one among many expressions of comedic dismay.

If a movie is that bad, someone can throw in a towel, and the film next in line will be screened. Even though “The Monster Walks” was only 57 minutes long and we had 10 minutes left, each second stretched into infinity, and there was hardly a plot to be resolved. So we moved on.

“Hercules” (1983), starring Lou Ferrigno of “The Incredible Hulk” fame, was pretty dang bad. By the time “The Guyver,” featuring Mark Hamill (aka Luke Skywalker), flashed across the screen, I was nearing my limit. My night was finished after about 30 minutes of that scifi mess. Just like “Hercules,” “The Guyver” (1991) sports sloppy production values and lots of bad acting.

A few thoughts on trolls, freaks and cult faves

According to the Internet Movie Database, movies such as “Manos: The Hands of Fate” (1966) and “Troll 2” (1990) are among the worst movies of all time. What I find interesting is that, despite their numerous flaws, they are way better and more entertaining than hundreds of direct-to-video junk.

Some movies have cult appeal and are best viewed at midnight shows, but don’t lump them with bad movies. Consider “Freaks” (1932). I questioned Dave about its inclusion on his club’s list. Dave said “Freaks,” like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” or “Death Race 2000,” isn’t necessarily bad but can be viewed that way by a mainstream audience or younger, uninitiated people. Perhaps it’s easy to call an offbeat or strange movie bad. It all falls to taste. To me, “Freaks” is art, the cinematic equivalent of a barker hyping the oddities inside a circus tent. Maybe the realistic performances by non-actor circus performers can be seen as odd, but that is part of the film’s charm.

I think to decide whether a movie sucks horseapples, you should look at its talent and production values. The line between A-grade and B-grade movies really doesn't seem to exist anymore, but there are a few telltale signs that point to a bad movie. I grew up during the video store boom of the 1980s and ‘90s, and I learned many of the new releases were bad based on just a few traits I will share now.

1. Direct to video: Not to be confused with limited-release or arthouse-release movies. Direct to video pretty much means that a movie wasn’t distributed in theaters. Not being watchable is a top reason. I kind of feel many direct-to-video releases should be stored in a top-secret vault somewhere. If they weren't released in theaters because they stink to high heaven, then why fill up the shelves at a video store? Also, some movies that are available to rent or buy feature production values of Z-list actors and appear to be shot on VHS tape. I wonder how this stuff can even be sold.

2. Blatant ripoffs: OK, sometimes movies such as “Alligator” and “Piranha,” which ride the coattails of Spielberg’s “Jaws,” are entertaining. When a successful movie makes enough money, ripoffs surely will try to capitalize. When “Snakes on a Plane” was released in 2006, dozens of obvious ripoffs tried to tap its cheesiness and formula for success. Rule of thumb: If the video box art resembles another movie or there are buzzwords in the title that are similar to something else, chances are it is a stinker.

3. Films starring the sibling of a celebrity: You may see names like Travolta, Swayze and so on, but they aren't the actors we know and love. Instead, we get Joey Travolta or Don Swayze.

4. Chupacabra movies: They’re pretty bad. Enough said.

5. Certain production companies: Examples include Full Moon and Tempe Entertainment. They specialize in extremely weak horror movies that flirt with being decent but never are. Take “Gingerdead Man” starring Gary Busey—or, to be more accurate, starring his voice. The DVD case says he stars in it, but he only provides the voice for the gingerbread man that houses the soul of a serial killer, a la Chucky in the “Child’s Play” series. (Please reread No. 2 above.) Did I think “Gingerdead Man” was going to be good? No. But I at least expected Busey to get some screen time before he turned into a cookie.

Dave Smith's Bad Video Club serves up an evening of entertainment that brings out people’s inner snarkiness. Take a lesson from his group’s shenanigans. Pick up some movies, maybe even a film featuring a chupacabra or starring Gary Busey, call up some friends and share some chuckles.